Shimatani Yoshinori: Buddhist Bell Artisan

by Best-Japanese Team
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Shimatani-san with Translator

On Thursday evening I powered down the laptop and made a beeline for High Street Kensington and Japan House London. The reason for my visit was to cover a talk and demonstration of the Orin Buddhist Bell led by Shimatani Yoshinori. He’s a 4th generation metal artisan from Takaoka City in Toyama Prefecture located in central Japan. Although Shimatani-san’s presentation was focused on Orin, there was also an introduction to Toyama Prefecture by their local tourist board.

What are Orin Buddhist Bells?

Let’s consider what Orin bells are. My first memories in Japan actually involve Orin bells when I joined a ceremony for a family member. When you go to a Buddhist temple in Japan, you’ll see these inverted bells that look like giant bowls, with Buddhist monks striking them with string-covered mallet at several points during a ceremony. The monks are usually seated in front of the Orin and between striking them, they chant in low tones or go through prayers. While it may not be instantly obvious, the function of an Orin bell is to provide the monks with a tone which they align the pitch of their voice with. They also improve the focus of the monks and soothe the minds of everyone present in the service.

Do you know Toyama?

Toyama Introduction

Before Shimatani-san started his presentation, we received a short introduction to Toyama from a representative of the Toyama tourism board who flew in for what we are calling “Toyama week in London”. Toyama is one of the lesser-well known prefectures in Japan and as she expected when she asked the question, most of the audience said they did not know Toyama. The prefecture is actually located in the north of the Hokuriku region of Japan, on the Sea of Japan coast opposite Tokyo.

We then heard the meaning behind Toyama. She explained that “To” means treasures and “Yama” stands for mountains. Together we have treasure mountain and this is fitting for Toyama, a prefecture famous for it’s hot springs, ski areas, and the Tateyama Alpine route with 20 metre high snow walls. Another draw for Toyama being the gateway to the sea of Japan is it’s fantastic seafood and then you have the traditional farmhouse villages of Gokayama – similar to Shirakawa-go in nearby Gifu but less frequented by tourists.

When Shimatani-san began his talk, he brought up a map showing Toyama’s position in relation to Tokyo and explained that his studio was in Takaoka City, which is the second largest city in Toyama and boasts a long history going back to the 8th century when it was made the provincial capital. Shortly after the Maeda Clan of the Kaga Domain took control of the city in the early Edo period, the clan started to promote the city as one of industry and craftsmanship. Before long, Takaoka had grown famous for copperware and metal craftsmanship, and now 95% of Japan’s copperware is being produced in Takaoka.

Twelve years of training

Shimatani Yoshinori Orin Buddhist Bell talk
Shimatani Yoshinori presenting at Japan House London

Like many other Japanese artisans, Shimatani-san received his training from his grandfather and father and is the fourth-generation in his family to create Orin Buddhist Bells. His apprenticeship began by solely listening to the sounds in his grandfather’s studio. This went on for not 5 full days or even 5 months but five whole years.

During this time he was not allowed to do anything except listen to the way the bells sounded as they were tuned. His apprenticeship slowly moved forward after this. At first he was allowed to do a few small things and his grandfather would correct him. Gradually more tasks were entrusted until finally in the last two years he had to progress to the stage where he could not make any mistake at all. This is how the craft is passed down from one generation to the next, and to master the whole process took 12 years.

Finally in 2009, he was certified as a ‘Traditional Craftsperson’ of Takaoka copperware, as designated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). There are now only 10 Buddhist Bell artisans working in Japan, and Shimatani-san is one of them. Here he did mention that he is concerned about these traditions being lost but that he has 3 children and he hopes that one of them will be interested in learning about the craft.

How do you make an Orin Buddhist Bell?

Sound of Orin Talk
Shimatani-san’s presented in Japanese with an interpreter providing excellent translations throughout

Orin is one type of Buddhist bell although it should be noted that there are also large scale Tsurigane hanging bells found in temples. Shimatani-san makes Orin bells which are generally 90 centimeters in diameter at the top and 110 centimetres in the middle. He also make smaller variations with the smallest being only 9 centimetres wide. As you may expect, the larger the bell, the more strength is required so it’s typical for artisans to work simultaneously on several bells of different sizes.

We then learnt about the structure of the Orin bells. They are made of 3 different parts welded together. The top part is made of a strip and the thickest part at 8mm wide. The middle is approximately 0.5mm and acts like a speaker. Then there is the bottom layer of the bell. According to Shimatani-san the thickest part of the bell (the top) is the most important and you have to pound this section many times to ensure it is dense. In this way you make sure that the ringing sounds is clear. In addition as the material to make Orin is brass, the harder you hit it, the stronger it gets.

Once a Buddhist Bell is made, it can generally last 50 years and in some cases up to 100 years. Although here Shimatani-san joked it is potentially not so good for business if all the bells last more than 100 years.

Finally we learn about annealing or Yakinamashi in Japanese. This is the heating process that changes the physical properties of the metal used to make the bells and makes it more workable. The correct temperature for annealing is 650 degrees celsius although Japanese metal artisans don’t use temperature reading but instead understand the right temperature by visually checking the colour of the metal.

What does an Orin Buddhist Bell sound like?

Shimatani-san provided one demonstration as he began his talk. And then halfway through it, he provided another chance when he tested the audience with a fun impromptu game using two Orin bells he brought with him. While he had made both bells, one had been tuned but the other had not. In the Japan House hall, it was instantly recognisable to the majority of the audience which bell had been tuned. However when listening to the recording again it gets a little harder although if you have high-quality headphones you can probably tell which is which.

To give a hint, the tuned bell is the one which has the deeper tone which is the more soothing one. As Shimatani-san explained the other bell sounds jittery as the sound wave moves too quickly. Therefore it would not be found relaxing or peaceful enough for ceremonies. Have a go and see if you can recognise which bell is which. We’ll add details of which bell is which at the bottom of the article so as not to give it away for those who want to try.

Questions from the audience

Orin Buddhist Bell Talk
Shimatani-san after the talk answering all the audience questions

Following the talk, there was time for the audience to ask Shimatani-san a few questions.

Audience member 1: What is the difference between Japanese Orin bells and Tibetian bells?

Shimatani-san: First the bowls are created differently with different circumferences. There is also a difference in the way the bells are used. The ones in Tibet often involve circling movements around the bowls to create a certain sound. Probably at first, the bells in Japan were similar. Then after time the Orin makers together with Buddhist priest changed the bells towards the Orin we know today.

Audience member 2: How long did it take to make gorgeous Orin bell we see here today?

Shimatani-san: 6 months. However I was creating other bells at the same time as I made this one.

Audience member 3: You mention your concern about waiting to pass on the next generation which is typical in arts. Would you have any issues with your daughter taking over rather than your sons? Also my second question is what keeps the flame going for you in terms of inspiration when you are working?

Shimatani-san: For me as long as any one of my children want to learn how to be a metal craftsperson I would be happy. However who it is, whether they are a boy or girl, I am certain they will soon have large and strong muscles! In answer to your second question, there is a word in Japanese called Shuhari (守破離). In terms of tradition, Shu means to follow your master, Ha refers to breaking out from that tradition, and Ri is separating yourself from that tradition and creating something new. I try to work towards Ri although in my view I am still in the Ha process.

Questions from Best Japanese

Shimatani signature request
Shimatani-san received several autograph requests after the talk ended

The talk and demonstration then finished, and after about 30 minutes of more questions and requests from the audience who stayed behind, I managed to get the chance to ask Shimatani-san a few more questions about Orin Bells.

Best Japanese Q1: What is the longest time that an Orin Buddhist Bell can ring for?

Shimatani-san: The bigger the bell, the longer it can ring for and I would say the longest is for 10 minutes. Eiheiji Temple in Fukui has one of the biggest. Another large bell is the one at Soji-ji Temple in Kanagawa.

Best Japanese Q2: This might be a little strange but what kind of music do you like listening to?

Shimatani-san: Ah ok. I like listening to regular genres of music. That might be suprising? Like The Beatles if we are talking about Western music.

Best Japanese Q3: What’s the most memorable Orin that you have worked on?

Shimatani-san: Good question. I would say it was making a one meter bell for the first time. Before I was used to making 90 centimeter bells. While there might not seem much of a difference to extend to 1 metre, those extra 10 centimetres made a huge difference. It was a much harder process and took almost 2 years. This is because it needs one person to strike the bell while 3 people move the bell around. So you basically need four people to move in harmony. That is what made it a special bell for me.

We hope you found this article a great insight into Orin, Takaoka City and Shimatani Yoshinori. At this stage we would like to thank JNTO for organising the event and inviting us. For those wondering which bell was the tuned one, the correct answer was Bell A (the first one).

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in learning more about Japanese culture and events, we would whole-heartedly recommend checking our Japanese culture section. In the case you are thinking of travelling to Japan, please check out our Japan Travel Tips or flights through Skyscanner below.

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